Buccaneers' Defense Is Set to Rule the Day

Times Staff Writer

TAMPA, Fla. -- The NFC division playoff game between Tampa Bay and San Francisco today at Raymond James Stadium is going to be all about the Tampa Bay defense that led the NFL in seven categories.

It could be about throw and catch, about San Francisco quarterback Jeff Garcia's ability to run and hide and scramble and somehow find receiver Terrell Owens, who runs his mouth and his routes and makes spectacular plays every game. But it won't be.

It could be about the coaches. San Francisco's Steve Mariucci was contacted first about the Tampa Bay job last year. While he dawdled, the Buccaneers stole Jon Gruden from Oakland. Best friends in the Bay Area, boy geniuses still, they know each other, they know each other's systems. But it won't be.

It could be about health, Brad Johnson's mostly. But it won't be.

The Tampa Bay quarterback sat out the last two games of the regular season with what has been reported as anything from a bone bruise in his back to a fractured vertebra.

Johnson has flourished under Gruden. The 11-year veteran completed 281 of 451 passes in his 13 starts for 3,049 yards. He had 22 touchdown passes, only six interceptions and a career-best 92.9 quarterback rating.

Johnson has been practicing this week and Gruden told Tampa reporters that "it looked like he had no ill effects whatsoever."

It could be about confidence. The 49ers found theirs in rallying from a 24-point deficit in a quarter and a half last week against the New York Giants, and the 49ers talk Super Bowl and not playoff wins. But it won't be.

The Buccaneers do need some of the playoff confidence. Tampa Bay has been good at reaching the playoffs, having done so four consecutive times. It's winning once it gets there that's the problem. The Buccaneers beat the Redskins, 14-13, in 1999 and have lost three consecutive playoff games since. The Buccaneers are 3-7 overall in the playoffs.

And the Buccaneers will get that confidence from their defense. It has produced the Associated Press defensive player of the year in outside linebacker Derrick Brooks. Brooks had 170 tackles and scored four touchdowns.

Joining Brooks at the Pro Bowl will be tackle Warren Sapp (7 1/2 sacks), end Simeon Rice (15 1/2 sacks), safety John Lynch (96 tackles) and cornerback Brian Kelly, a fifth-year pro from USC who tied for the league lead with eight interceptions.

This is a defense that led the league in total defense (252.8 yards per game), interceptions (31) and fewest points allowed (196 or 12.3 per game). No team has led those three categories since the 1985 Chicago Bears.

"I've seen the highest of highs and lowest of lows in this organization," Brooks says, "and the Super Bowl championship is something that we are aiming for. You get there once, you want to get there again. We're just trying to get to that first one and hopefully have a chance to win."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World